Cam Newton is NEXT

AT LONG LAST, Cam Newton has dropped the scowl and the towel in favor of a barber's cape and an actual, honest-to-goodness smile. On a Tuesday afternoon in late November, the Panthers' record-breaking rookie quarterback is inside Bank of America Stadium getting a quick trim from his personal barber -- provided, of course, he can sit still long enough. Looking childlike, his arms hidden under the old-school cape, dwarfing the tiny plastic chair, Newton fills the room with his suddenly booming personality. After hiding beneath a Gatorade towel for the better part of five months, today Newton has decided he's ready to formally reintroduce himself to the world.

Over the buzz of the clippers, Newton begins with a series of rapid-fire takes. He starts with bad haircuts, Michael Jackson's death, college kids stealing his Superman pose and his penchant for giving out instant nicknames that sound like cheesy superhero monikers: Center Ryan Kalil is the Father; offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski is Mr. Big Chunk.
And the guy with the notepad standing off to the side? He is now, and forever, the Reporter.

On a roll, Newton moves on to collard greens, the sad state of his wardrobe, Batman, the proper marshmallow-to-milk ratio for Lucky Charms and, finally, Drake's new album. Newton considers it a masterpiece of R&B and Southern hip-hop and has listened to the CD so often, he already has Rihanna's verses from the title track, "Take Care," memorized. Right on cue, Newton sticks his chin in the air, closes his eyes and begins to croon, "I know you beeeeen huuurrrtttt."

Considering what he went through before Carolina selected him No. 1 overall in April's draft, it's easy to see why Newton relates to these lyrics. Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly denounced him, without ever meeting him, as "very disingenuous -- has a fake smile ... and a selfish, me-first makeup." Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw told his fellow Fox NFL Sunday analysts that he preferred every other quarterback taken in the first round over Newton. ESPN's draft analyst, Mel Kiper, warned teams that, similar to Newton, "Akili Smith was a one-year wonder out of Oregon. Look what happened with him with the Cincinnati Bengals." Sure, the whole media-did-me-wrong story line is perhaps the most tired subplot in all of sports, but, "I was truly scarred by the things I heard before the draft," Newton says. "Now I feel like I'm ready to come out of my shell. I know I have the talent to change this game, and I don't see no ceiling. So I'm not knocking on the door, like tap-tap-tap. I'm gonna kick that door in, like SWAT."

Since 1998, ESPN The Magazine has been recognizing athletes poised for greatness. And if the NEXT concept ever needed a lyrical manifesto, Cam Newton just provided it. NEXT is about change and transcendence, youth and hope, winning and losing. It's about embracing the unstoppable force of the future and forcing the rest of us to reimagine the perceived limits of sports with one well-placed cleat.

Which is why, in 2012, Cam Newton is NEXT. In just five months, he's rewritten the rookie record book and revolutionized the most difficult and demanding job in sports. "Some people are afraid to say what they want, but I'm not," says Newton. "I want to be the symbol of success in this league. I want to win multiple Super Bowls. To get there, you have to have a relentless will to be something far greater than what you are. You gotta have that edge."

IN JUST ONE FULL SEASON as an FBS starter, the 6'5", 248-pound Newton won the 2011 BCS national championship and the Heisman Trophy while pulling off the stunning combo of leading the SEC in rushing and finishing second in the NCAA in passing efficiency. Scouts and draft experts, however, focused on Newton's lack of experience, the allegations that he'd transferred to Blinn College after two years at Florida to avoid academic expulsion for cheating or that his family was paid for him to attend Auburn. On many boards, he was ranked the second-best quarterback in the draft, behind Blaine Gabbert. NFL Network analyst Joe Theismann wasn't even sure whether the Auburn star was worthy of a first-round pick. The reviews were so harsh that Newton's mentor, Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, wondered whether they were fueled by racism. "But I can't sit up here and look at it like, oh man, my critics are racist," Newton says. "I blame JaMarcus Russell and to some degree Vince Young. If you have the opportunity to make that kind of money doing something you love to do, why would you screw it up? I'm trying to be a trailblazer. If Baylor's Robert Griffin decides to come out, I want people to say 'He can be the next Cam Newton' instead of 'He's gonna be the next JaMarcus Russell.'"

Newton showed up in Charlotte more than a little irked. He decided to talk only at required news conferences and let his play speak for itself. The plan started paying dividends after just two throws. Newton's third pass as a pro was a 77-yard touchdown. Despite not being able to work with Panthers coaches during the lockout, he became the first player in NFL history to throw for more than 400 yards in his debut, and through Week 2 he was at 854 total passing yards. "I had people who can't throw a football telling me my mechanics were wrong," says Newton. "I had people taking shots at my character, classifying me as a thug, as a hoodlum. After Week 3 or 4, all these same people wanted an interview. I said, 'You were giving me all this crap and had so much to say about how I was gonna play, and now you wanna talk? No. Just sit back and watch the show, man.'"

Newton's performance has been helped immeasurably by a progressive coaching staff and an offensive scheme bordering on genius. After 16 years without back-to-back winning seasons, Carolina hired highly respected defensive coordinator Ron Rivera as its new head coach, who in turn was clever and brave enough to surround his young quarterback with the kind of sharp offensive minds befitting Newton's $22 million price tag.

Breaking with the traditional way of thinking that a rookie quarterback should shut up and conform to a team's offensive playbook, Rivera hired Chudzinski, who'd coached with Rivera on Norv Turner's staff in San Diego. Pale-faced and bespectacled, the 43-year-old Chudzinski is an emerging rock star in NFL coaching circles. After arriving in Charlotte, he installed a variation of the Chargers' aggressive vertical passing offense while mixing in a heavy dose of the read-option package Newton ran at Auburn. There were also up to 10 run plays a game for the linebacker-size quarterback who showed up on the first day of practice and smoked the team's fastest players in a series of wind sprints. The brilliance of the plan was how malleable it was: As Newton's fundamentals and defensive recognitions improved, Chudzinski weaned him from his comfortable college plays to more of the vertical attack.

"Knowing how tough it is to figure this position out, I give a lot of credit to guys like Cam who were thrust in there as rookies and are playing so well," says Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "That has to be exciting for those organizations to know they have quarterbacks who they can really build something around."

With much of the same lineup that finished dead last in total offense a year ago, Newton and Chudzinski had lifted Carolina to fifth overall through Week 15. Thanks to an NFL-best 80 plays of 20 or more yards, the Panthers' offensive production had jumped 134.7 yards per game. Newton, meanwhile, now owns the NFL record for rushing touchdowns
by a quarterback and broke Peyton Manning's old mark for yards passing by a rookie (3,739) in a 48-16 win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 24. Beyond the numbers, though, what has impressed Carolina's coaches the most has been Newton's ability to do what scouts said he couldn't: accept the tough lessons of a rookie quarterback, learn and absorb the corrections and immediately apply them on the field. "Cam's speed is what sets him apart, but it's his mental speed," says Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey. "It's supposed to take a long time to pick this stuff up, but he always seems to be one step ahead of the game mentally."

After throwing three picks against Atlanta in Week 6, Newton devoured more than 12 hours of film. He was sloppy with the weight transfer on his feet, which led to inaccurate throws. Plus, he wasn't seeing fast enough when defenses would dial up an overload blitz and roll coverage over the top on the same side to bracket receiver Steve Smith. The next week, a more controlled Newton was 18-for-23 for 256 yards with two TDs (one passing, one rushing) and no turnovers in a 33-20 win over Washington. "The kid is a pretty Ferrari," Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall said afterward. "He
can run. He can throw. He's got it all."

It's a style of quarterbacking Newton calls the Blender, dreamed up in the backyard of his childhood home in College Park, Ga. Under center, Nerf ball in hand, Newton mimicked the pre-snap mental wizardry of Manning. Then he'd mix in a little of Tom Brady's steadiness in the pocket and downfield touch. And when needed, Newton would add an explosive open-field style borrowed from Michael Vick. It's hard to fathom, but just five years removed from his backyard, it is Newton who now seems destined to be the player who completes the evolution of the multidimensional quarterback developed by Fran Tarkenton, Randall Cunningham, Steve Young and Vick. "Gone are the days of the drop-back quarterback who can only throw the ball," says Newton. "You know the new iPhone? It's faster, more powerful and smarter. It's revolutionary. Why can't the quarterback be like that? Why can't you be a big, tall, fast, quick, strong, smart, mobile quarterback who's unstoppable?"

If proving that you can, while also keeping your mouth shut, was Phase 1 for Newton, Phase 2 seems to be destroying Carolina's culture of losing. After having a 14-0 record as a starter in college, Newton wanted to explode when the Panthers lost five of their first six games. Hidden under that Gatorade towel, he was deathly silent after games. "I'm not even able to smile and say 'boom, look what I've done' because I'm so frustrated by our record," he says. "It just affects me so much when I see people smiling after the game, making plans to go out. I'm not used to it, and I want that type of mentality to be unanimous around here."

Around midseason, with his frustrations about to blow, Newton's cellphone rang. It was Ray Lewis, the Ravens' future Hall of Fame linebacker. "Baby boy," crackled the voice on the other end of the line, "whatcha so mad about? Listen here, you ain't going through nothing that anybody that is great hasn't been through."

A defiant Newton swallowed hard, stood up straight and tried to explain himself -- and Lewis filled his ear with laughter. "Four years," Lewis shouted. It took him four years to get Baltimore to .500. (In Year 5, the Ravens won the Super Bowl.) "This isn't who you are," Lewis said. "Why ain't you smiling? Get a damn smile on your face." To a man, Newton's teammates and coaches say they welcome his outspoken, unrelenting competitive fire. But if Ray Lewis calls out of the blue to say you're too intense, maybe it's time to chill a bit. "People are gonna respect the Panthers," says Newton. "And I want what I do as a quarterback to be scary. I want people to be in fear. I want it, and I'm gonna get it. But I realize now it's a process."

It's a progression Newton still finds humbling. The same week he broke Steve Grogan's single-season record for rushing TDs by a quarterback, Newton was seen rushing from the players' parking lot to the locker room with lunch from a chicken joint for all the veterans.

Figures. This season Newton has delivered on everything for Carolina, including lunch.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.